ON THE DAY OF her son’s crucifixion, for distraction ‘in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and crying out’, Mary watches a man feeding live rabbits to a bird of prey he has confined in a small cage.

The bird is frustrated and angry. The rabbits are ‘little bundles of fierce and terrorised energy’. The bird eats their guts and then their eyes until the cage is half-full of half-dead, squealing, twitching bodies. The man is ‘almost smiling with dark delight … the sack not yet empty.’

This unsettling image is described early in Colm Toibin’s unsettling novella based on the life of Mary — you know, hail Mary. It seems to be a metaphor, but it does not unpack neatly. Is Christ the rabbit being fed to the ravenous crowd, gathering to watch a public execution, suffering ‘from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy’? Is the cruel man whose face ‘was all bright with energy’ the established order seeking to impose its will?

Its meaning may be elusive, but it provides a realistic vignette that establishes the horror of the scene. A mother is watching her son being tortured to death in public. This is commonplace sadism in a time and place when such events represented quotidian law and order. But the feelings of a mother at such a gathering are unbearable to imagine.

This is what makes The Testament of Mary so fascinating. We cannot help but bring our modern sensibilities to her situation. What could it honestly be like to discover your son is the chosen one, the divine made flesh? The events of her story are long familiar to us all, so the merciless trajectory of the narrative makes for painful reading. Your heart breaks in sorrow for this woman. It doesn’t end well.

Toibin’s Mary is more akin to Terry Jones’ character in The Life of Brian than gentle Mary, meek and mild, the virtuous intercessor of the ages with eyes downcast. She is angry, bewildered, tired. She does not understand her son or his followers. She sees the essential oddness of the events that accompany him — turning water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead. She has found herself associated with an outlawed band of subversives and she is in mortal dread for her safety and that of her son. There is no Pieta. She leaves the crucifixion before its grisly conclusion and escapes for fear of the Romans.

Toibin creates a believably human Mary, but The Testament of Mary is not concerned with the historical individual. Rather, it uses an old story to imagine a new story, a completely different one. When reading reader’s reviews on Amazon I came across one comment stating, ‘I wish he had given us more of her younger life’. Some readers are inevitably motivated by a desire to encounter and sympathise with the ‘real’ Mary, but this is as unavailable to us here as it is in those other testaments of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

What Toibin describes is one mother in one story. It is a story that relies on our pre-loaded familiarity of the life of Christ and its vast cultural overlay that we have all absorbed in our own ways. We have our various understandings that we bring to bear on our reading. As such, he points to the inability of narrative to capture the truth of history. What ‘really’ happened is as opaque as ever.

But rage, anguish and bewilderment jump off the page. Two disciples (minders, guards, she calls them) visit Mary seeking her testimony while they are creating an account of the life of her son. She doesn’t understand them. They explain he died to redeem the world. They tell her that, thanks to his great suffering, everyone in the world — those who came before, who live now and who have yet to be born — would know eternal life.

‘Oh, eternal life!’ says Mary. ‘Oh, everyone in the world.’

This final anguished note on which the novella ends seems to belong to Toibin. It poses a theological question. The word ‘testimony’ suggests witnessing. His Mary says to her minders:

‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’

Not worth it. This is what a mother might conclude whose son has been forced into the cage and fed to the hawk. This too is what we might conclude from the long story of Christianity. In this strange, austere, fiercely beautiful retelling of events we cannot fully know, this emerges as a deeply held truth — for Toibin’s Mary and maybe for Toibin too.